"Oh, I just love your little Tasu!"
Julie looked up with surprise to see an older speckled Gnorbu smiling down at her Tasu, Oslo. Julie had been taking Oslo for a walk and the Tasu jumped at the Gnorbu from the end of his leash, his entire body wiggling with excitement.
The Gnorbu chuckled. "He's spotted, isn't he? Lovely coat."
"Yes, spotted. Thank you," Julie answered, smiling weakly.
Spotted, just like her daughter. But of course her daughter wasn't a Tasu, but a Gelert, just as Julie was herself (though Julie's own fur was a nice shade of red). Julie hadn't seen her daughter for two years now. It had been just over two years since Emma had run away and no one had been able to find her and bring her back. Though Julie knew that her daughter and petpet shared a paint brush color, it looked entirely different on the two of them and it wasn't until things like this that she was unpleasantly reminded. She made it a point to forget. There were enough painful reminders as it was.
"What's his name?" the Gnorbu queried, peering at Julie over her circular brown glasses.
"What's his name?" Emma asked curiously only minutes after her mother had walked in the door with a small, fluffy petpet in her arms.
"What do you think we should name him?" Julie asked with a smile.
The two of them and Emma's father, Henry, spent the evening thinking up names together, the father being the one who finally chose the winning name.
"Oslooo," Emma said, drawing the name out, testing out its sound. The Tasu perked his up ears and looked at her and she giggled, a delightful sound that was to be missed in the years to come.
"Oslo," Julie told the Gnorbu.
"Ooh, that's interesting! I like it," the Gnorbu said kindly.
"Ooh, that's interesting," Emma sneered, her features unusually bitter. She had just been told she was in trouble for stealing neopoints from her parents and then lying about it, insisting she'd done nothing.
"You will not talk to us that way," Julie told Emma flatly, Henry standing at her side with a stern look on his face.
Emma just frowned dismissively and with biting sarcasm said, "So you're allowed to get me in trouble for something I didn't do, but I'm not allowed to be angry about it? Right. Okay. I get it now."
"If you would just admit what you did and apologize for it we would lessen your punishment, you know. Doing something bad and confessing to it and (hopefully) being regretful is one thing; doing something bad and then entirely refusing to even admit anything at all is quite another," Henry said.
"But I didn't do anything!" Emma shrieked, clearly having lost her temper. Her parents' eyebrows rose and their expressions darkened even further, but she didn't give them a chance to say anything else. She glared at them, angry tears welling in her eyes, and stormed swiftly away to her bedroom, slamming the door so hard behind herself that the house shook.
Henry scowled furiously and made to follow her, but Julie put a hand on his arm.
"Just let it be for tonight. It's late. We can get her into all sorts of trouble tomorrow," she said dryly, rubbing her eyes with evident tiredness.
In the morning Emma was gone.
"Thank you," Julie said softly. "It is nice, isn't it? My husband thought it up."
"Oh, well, he's good at picking names, then!" the Gnorbu said. Then she paused for a moment, her wrinkled face slipping into a look of warmhearted concern as she hesitantly asked, "Ma'am... Excuse me, but is something wrong?"
"What if we were wrong?" Julie asked Henry, voicing the doubt that had been echoing unpleasantly through her mind for the past week, leaving her stomach writhing with guilt. "What if Emma was telling the truth?"
Henry took a moment to answer. Finally he said, "Even if we were wrong, she shouldn't have run away. And there's nothing we can do about that right now. We can only keep looking."
"We could have done something," Julie said desperately, almost pleading, though to whom she didn't know.
Henry just shook his head sadly, taking her hand.
"Stop. We could have done something," Julie said again, her voice breaking.
Julie tried to smile at the Gnorbu. "Oh, thank you, but I'm fine."
"I'm sorry, I just thought maybe you seemed a little upset about something," the Gnorbu said. "May I ask your name?"
"May I ask your name?" the police officer asked. "I'm sorry, I was told, but I'm very bad with names."
"Julie. Julie Finch."
"Well, Mrs. Finch," he started in a tone that made Julie's stomach drop. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
Julie sank down on the sofa next to her.
"We can't find your daughter, ma'am, and it's been months. We're going to have to give up the search. I'm very sorry."
Julie just nodded, looking ahead of her at nothing. She nodded and nodded, teeth dug deep into her lip.
"I'm sorry," the police officer repeated, sounding genuinely regretful and somewhat worried. There was silence for a few seconds, and then he said, "I should probably be going back to the station now. Good day, Mrs. Finch." He tipped his hat to her and let himself out the door.
Julie sat there nodding quickly for a while longer, but then she began to sob. Gone. No. She couldn't be gone. But she was. She was gone. Gone.
Julie was almost glad that Henry got out of work so much later than she did and wouldn't be home for a few hours yet, because she knew it would distress him to see her as brokenhearted as she was, and she didn't think he needed that on top of the news and his own broken heart.
She could have done something. Emma shouldn't be gone. But she was. She was gone.
"My name's Julie."
"Well, it was very nice meeting you, Miss Julie. I'm Susanne."
She held out a paw to shake and Julie took it. "It was nice meeting you too, Susanne."
"Hopefully I'll see you around again sometime!" Susanne said in a friendly voice. Then she waved and began to walk away and Julie continued on.
Everything reminded her. Two years later and she was still as worried as ever, still as sad, guilty, full of grief. The most innocuous, humdrum five-minute chats with strangers she met walking her Tasu could bring it all back. None of it ever really went away. She didn't suppose it ever would.
Julie wished that she would at least hear something about her daughter. She supposed she could handle not seeing her horribly-missed child again if only she knew that she was okay. That was almost the worst, the not knowing. There was a constant feeling of dread, and the shred of hope she hung onto was almost as torturous as everything else. And it was all over something so silly. Preventable. But too late to fix now.
Oslo bounded exuberantly down the sidewalk while Julie trudged on wearily behind him, forever weighted, forever hurting, never again to be in any way free, not while such a large, lovely piece of her life was lost. She felt swallowed by an emptiness that wouldn't ever be filled, a worry that would always be gnawing, and a guilt she could never let go.